Today in the NY Times philosophy column, “The Stone,” Richard Polt takes on those who try to “reduce” ethics and humanity to biology or technology.
Here are some tidbits. I recommend the whole essay. It isn’t long.
…In fact, the very idea of an “ought” is foreign to evolutionary theory. It makes no sense for a biologist to say that some particular animal should be more cooperative, much less to claim that an entire species ought to aim for some degree of altruism. If we decide that we should neither “dissolve society” through extreme selfishness, as Wilson puts it, nor become “angelic robots” like ants, we are making an ethical judgment, not a biological one. Likewise, from a biological perspective it has no significance to claim that I should be more generous than I usually am, or that a tyrant ought to be deposed and tried. In short, a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless.
…Today’s “artificial intelligence” is cleverly designed, but it’s no closer to real intelligence than the letter-writing automatons of the 18th century. None of these devices can think, because none of them can care; as far as we know there is no program, no matter how complicated, that can make the world matter to a machine. So computers are anything but human — in fact, they’re well below the level of an ant. Show me the computer that can feel the slightest twinge of pain or burst of pleasure; only then will I believe that our machines have started down the long road to thought.
…The temptation to reduce the human to the subhuman has been around for a long time. In Plato’s “Phaedo,” Socrates says that some philosophers would explain his presence in prison by describing the state of his bones and sinews, but would say nothing about his own decisions and his views of what was best — the real reasons he ended up on death row. “They can’t tell the difference between the cause and that without which the cause couldn’t be a cause,” he says. Without a brain or DNA, I couldn’t write an essay, drive my daughter to school or go to the movies with my wife. But that doesn’t mean that my genes and brain structure can explain why I choose to do these things — why I affirm them as meaningful and valuable.
Good stuff throughout, including an interesting analysis of why people are prone to explain the human with the sub-human.
I would quibble on one point, though. Polt argues that “…in order to reject reductionism, we don’t necessarily have to embrace religion or the supernatural.” Naturalistic ethics (which are really non-ethics, in my view) can be combated, I suppose, without appealing to the supernatural. But if core ethical questions are not grounded in nature, where else can they be grounded but in the supernatural?
We can philosophize about what makes us human or what makes humans survive and flourish, but what answer does naturalism have to the larger question of why does humanity matter in the first place? In an arbitrary, random, and meaningless universe, there is no reason to think that humans or anything we do matters or means anything at all.